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Cuff Me! The Fifty Shades of Grey Musical Parody

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matthew Brian Bagley and Laurie Elizabeth Gardner
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

How do you successfully mock something no one takes seriously in the first place? This is the challenge that Bradford McMurran, Jeremiah Albers, and Sean Michael Devereux do not satisfactorily address with their new show at the Actors Temple Theatre, Cuff Me: The Fifty Shades of Grey Unauthorized Musical Parody.

As the work's title indicates, it's a nonstop spoof of E.L. James's infamous 2011 S&M novel. The book has inspired plenty of explosive chit-chat for its lurid and endless sex scenes—between Ana Steele, a too-innocent college student, and hunky young entrepreneur Christian Grey, who makes her his fixation and his submissive for some 500 pages (and that's just in the first of three books about them—but its humble beginnings as Twilight fan fiction probably would have doomed to the literary ash heap even had James's writing been somewhat more brilliant than it's generally considered.

The sheer number of websites and blog articles devoted to, ahem, celebrating James's unique approach to erotic prose prove that, in most respects, the joke is already a well-known one. So if the musical's writers, working from an original concept by Tim Flaherty, wanted to compete with language stylings like "My inner goddess fist pumps the air above her chaise longue," "His finger circled my puckered love cave," and "Christian, you are the state lottery, the cure for cancer, and the three wishes from Aladdin's lamp all rolled into one," they'd have to push the nonsense into skin-melting overdrive.

This, alas, has not happened. Though the book's descriptions and dialogue get a bit of ribbing, Cuff Me doesn't really do much more than fool with—and gingerly—the phenomenon. In the opening scene, for example, an urban housewife is introduced to the book by the workers at her nail salon. "Sweetheart," she's told, "it's not about the characters, the writing, or the story... It's all about the pages and pages of hardcore smut!" And once the story is invoked mere moments later, Christian (Matthew Brian Bagley) and Ana (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner) set about proving her right.

His oft-repeated comments about her bubble-headed naiveté strike the tone of an evening devoted to saying what doesn't need to be said; far funnier (at least by this show's standards) are Ana's roommate, Kate, ceaselessly declaring she's the more interesting character around whom the story should revolve—even though she's aware no one actually cares about her. (Kate is played by Tina Jensen, doing her best.) More surprisingly, the sex itself is largely ignored until the climactic scene set in Christian's "toy" room, and even that declines to indulge and inflate the novel's over-the-top excesses to generate genuine hilarity.

Equally safe is the score, which confines its own fun to lightly rewritten lyrics to familiar songs. Some of these make sense: "I Touch Myself" for the ladies in the salon, "Like a Virgin" for Ana and Christian's first encounter, and "Hit Me Baby One More Time" once Ana finally comes around. Others, like Coleman and Fields's "Big Spender" being used as a meet-cute duet and Bock and Harnick's "If I Were a Rich Man" slotting in for a solo for Ana's gay lawyer (a decent Alex Gonzalez), are more of a stretch.

Bagley and Gardner make an honest-to-goodness play for chemistry, and achieve enough to survive their lengthy, awkward assignments here; their piercing voices also do as much justice as is possible to the songs under these circumstances. Director Sonya Carter has, likewise, staged the show with as much clean fluidity as she could probably get away with, but a bit more raunch and even the suggestion of comedic edge would up the ante considerably.

Because nothing like that is in evidence, there's no way for Cuff Me to really succeed as a standalone piece—and, because the book's author cornered that market herself, the parody is not much more buoyant. What should for some, like 50 Shades of Grey itself, become a guilty pleasure you're embarrassed to admit you had a good time with, never morphs into something that, in honor of James, will leave your cheeks "as red as the Communist Manifesto."

Cuff Me! The Fifty Shades of Grey Musical Parody
Through July 21
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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